Editor’s note: Constance Kwant is an experienced international lawyer who has worked as in-house senior legal counsel for a top tier international financial institution in both Hong Kong and the Netherlands. She has a specific interest in sustainable business and human rights, including responsible finance.
This post aims to outline, briefly analyse and to provide a critical comment in relation to striking a balance between confidentiality and transparency in the procedure followed by the Dutch National Contact Point (‘NCP’) in the Specific instance procedure filed in December 2015 by three former employees (‘Representatives’) on behalf of a group of 168 former employees of Heineken’s subsidiary Bralima SA (‘Bralima’) in Bakavu, located in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (‘DRC’).
The case, finalised in August 2017, concerns alleged violations of labour and human rights by Bralima in the period 1999-2003, a period during which the DRC was a highly volatile and conflict-affected country, where the eastern part of the DRC was effectively under control of rebel movement DRC-Goma.The complaint also alleged that Bralima had cooperated with DRC-Goma in a number of ways throughout this period. On the basis of the alleged violations, the Representatives sought financial compensation by filing its notification with the NCP.
Since the allegations were brought forward to the NCP under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, this post will first provide short background information on the OECD Guidelines and the workings of the Dutch NCP, subsequently moving through the proceedings, its outcome, and a brief analysis with a critical note.
The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (‘OECD’) finds its roots in the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (‘OEEC)’, which was established in 1948 to run the US-financed Marshall Plan for the economic reconstruction of the European continent after World War II. Due to the recognition by governments of the interdependence of their economies and OEEC’s success, Canada and the US joined the 18 OEEC member countries by signing the new OECD Convention on 14 December 1960. The OECD was formally established on 30 September 1961, when the Convention entered into force. To date, the OECD has 35 member countries and a number of adhering non-member countries.
The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises were originally adopted in 1976 as part of the Declaration on International Investment and Multinational Enterprises (‘Guidelines’). These Guidelines are recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises operating in or from adhering countries and provide voluntary principles and standards for responsible business conduct. They are the only multilaterally endorsed and comprehensive code that governments are committed to promoting. Various reviews since then have taken place, in 1979,1982, 1984,1991, 2000 with the most recent update in 2011. The revision of the year 2000 Guidelines provided for further clarification of the roles and responsibilities of the National Contact Points (‘NCPs’) by the incorporation of a section relating to the Procedural Guidance on implementation procedures.  Since then, the Guidelines constitute the only international instrument regulating transnational corporations with a built-in grievance mechanism as it provides a mediation and conciliation platform for resolving issues that arise from alleged non-observance of the Guidelines through the NCPs. The most recent update in 2011 not only provides a reinforced procedural guidance to strengthen the role of the NCPs and improve their performance, it also contains an entirely new Chapter on Human Rights in line with the Ruggie Principles.
The National Contact Point of The Netherlands
The Dutch National Contact Point was established in 2000 as an independent entity, responsible for its own procedures and decision making. Its functioning falls under the political responsibility of the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation and its Secretariat is hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since its restructuring in 2007, the NCP consists of four independent members and four advisory members, the latter from the Ministries of respectively Social Affairs and Employment, of Economic Affairs, of Foreign Affairs and of Infrastructure and Environment.
The NCP has two core tasks: (i) raising awareness of the Guidelines with businesses, trade unions and non-governmental organisations (‘NGOs’); and (ii) contributing to the resolution of issues that arise from the alleged non-observance of the Guidelines in specific instances. It states “The NCP can assist the involved parties to find a solution in order to avoid further escalation or reputational damage”. This can be done in an informal process, or it may be through a formal notification of a specific instance.  Each specific instance procedure with the NCP follows a standard procedure including a confidentiality policy applicable to both the NCP and the parties involved.
The Bralima and Heineken case: specific instance procedure with the Dutch NCP
Background of the case
On 14 December 2015, the NCP received a notification of specific instance in relation to alleged violations of the 2000 Guidelines by Bralima SA (‘Bralima’), Bakavu, Democratic Republic of Congo and its ultimate parent company Heineken N.V. (‘Heineken’), based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The notification was filed by three former employees of Heineken’s subsidiary on behalf of a group of 168 former employees who had been made redundant in several rounds in the period 1999-2003.
In its Initial Assessment on the notification regarding the former employees of Bralima versus Bralima and Heineken of 28 June 2016, the NCP summarises the alleged violations under the Guidelines (version 2000) as follows:
- Violations of the human rights of their own workers in the Bralima company in Bakavu, RDC in the period 1999-2003
- Cooperation with the rebel movement of RCD-Goma from 2000-2003 in RDC and the consequences for the workers of Bralima at Bakavu, RDC and their families”
- Illegitimate dismissals of 168 employees of Bralima, Bakavu, RDC between 1999-2003
- Irregularities and deliberate omissions in the individual redundancy schemes of the dismissed worker
- Serious errors concerning mass dismissals in the period 1999-2003 contrary to the Congolese law by Bralima
- Taking the above into account Bralima and Heineken should pay two hundred million (200.000.000) euros to the former employees and their families as a compensation for the damages
In relation to the alleged violations of the Guidelines, it is argued that in particular the following Chapters of the Guidelines were violated: Chapter I. (Concept and Principles), Chapter II. (General Policies, paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11), Chapter IV. (Employment and Industrial Relations, paragraph 6) and Chapter VI. (Combating Bribery, paragraph 6). 
The NCP Procedure from receipt of the notification until the Initial Assessment
The NCP acknowledged receipt of the notification on 18 December 2015 and informed Heineken. The following steps were subsequently taken:
- 21 January 2016: the NCP spoke with the Representatives by phone, further communication (questions and answers) took place via email;
- 10 February 2016: the NCP had a meeting with Heineken during which Heineken asked for and was granted two weeks to determine its position;
- 10 February 2016: the NCP received an initial response from Heineken on the notification that its Code of Business Conduct and its underlying policies (including on Employees and Human Rights, Bribery and Improper Advantages and the Supplier Code) and other instruments apply to all companies within the Heineken Group, including Bralima, in more than 70 countries in which the companies of the Heineken Group operate; that Heineken indirectly holds 95% of the shares in Bralima; and Bralima stayed in the DRC because the business case continued to be valid.
- End of February 2016: the NCP supported Heineken’s proposal to first have the Representatives hold a meeting with the management of Bralima without interference of the NCP;
- 13 April 2016: the meeting was held in Bakavu, DRC. Both parties informed the NCP that the meeting had not divulged anything new;
- 31 May 2016: draft version of NCP’s initial assessment was sent to the parties with the request to submit any comments within two weeks;
- 28 June 2016: the NCP published its initial assessment on its website.
The Initial Assessment of the specific instance by the NCP
Since the DRC is not a member of the OECD, it has no National Contact Point. According to the NCP’s notification policy, in such case, a notice of specific instance can be submitted to the NCP where the multinational enterprise involved is seated.
The NCP, based on this, considered itself competent to offer its good offices and to initiate a dialogue since Heineken is based in Amsterdam. Both parties accepted NCP’s good offices and requested the appointment of a third-party mediator. Also, an expert in Congolese law was appointed. According to the Initial Assessment, Heineken stated that it “is of the opinion that there is no breach of the OECD Guidelines, […..] concerning the dismissals in the period 1999-2003 the existing procedures have been followed carefully,[…..] it has always been of the opinion that it was a case for Bralima, but it did follow the case, […..] the specific instance procedure is a forward looking process in which the NCP may try to verify the facts and organise interaction between the parties aimed at addressing the issues raised”. The NCP concluded that in accordance with the Guidelines (2000), and its own Specific Instance Procedure, the notification merited further examination. Thereafter, parties entered into agreements on confidentiality and transparency on mediation and further examination while in the process, in accordance with the NCP's procedure.
In the course of the procedure after the publication of the NCP’s Initial Assessment of 28 June 2016, several meetings were held in the period up to 18 July 2017. In January 2017, the parties agreed to the framework surrounding the dialogue. To further facilitate the dialogue and mediation process, shortly thereafter, meetings were also held at the Dutch embassies in respectively Kampala, Uganda, and Paris, France. These meetings were monitored by the NCP. In Kampala, the meeting between parties took place with the mediator, in Paris, with the externally appointed expert in Congolese labour law.
To further facilitate the dialogue and mediation process, shortly thereafter, meetings were also held at the Dutch embassies in respectively Kampala, Uganda, and Paris, France. These meetings were monitored by the NCP. In Kampala, the meeting between parties took place with the mediator, in Paris, with the externally appointed expert in Congolese labour law.
The NCP’s Final Statement and the scope of application of the Guidelines
According to the NCP’s Final Statement on the notification in Former employees Bralima vs Bralima and Heineken of 18 August 2017, the Guidelines (2000) equally apply to Heineken, not just Bralima, on the basis of Chapter II. General Policies, paragraph 1 of the Guidelines (2000).
In this context, the NCP noted: “the Guidelines (2000) do not mention enterprise groups”. Based on Chapter II. paragraph 1 however, it concluded that the Guidelines do apply because Heineken held (and still holds) indirectly 95% of the shares in Bralima, implying a very strong business relationship.
The NCP’s recommendations
In general terms, the NCP encourages Heineken to draw up a policy, including guidelines as to how Heineken is to conduct business and operate in volatile and conflict-affected areas. In addition, according to the NCP, the specific instance procedure highlights the need to ensure ongoing internal analysis of Heineken's existing policies and processes not only in the context of the Guidelines (2011) but also in relation to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (‘Ruggie Principles’).
The specific Recommendations adopted by the NCP relate to Chapter IV. (Employment and Industrial Relations), paragraph 3 of the Guidelines (2000) and state that Heineken is to “provide information to employees and their representatives which enables them to obtain a true and fair view of the performance of the entity or, where appropriate, the enterprise as a whole”.  Moreover, based on this and on Chapter IV. (Employment and Industrial Relations), paragraph 6 of the Guidelines (2000) the NCP recommends:
- transparency and communication to employees be part of enterprises’ policies for dealing with conflict settings; and
- the handling of complaints should be monitored and evaluated within company groups as part of applying corporate governance principles and practices throughout the group.
Subsequently, the NCP concluded on the basis of its monitoring role that “all parties have participated in a proper and fair way”. In addition, it stressed the useful support of an external third party mediator, the involvement of an external expert on Congolese law and the Dutch embassies in Kampala and Paris having facilitated meetings outside the DRC.  The parties accepted the offer from the NCP to conduct a dialogue on the implementation of its recommendations, scheduled for the summer of 2018. However, the final statement indicates also that both parties wanted to keep confidentiality on the agreement/outcome and “the NCP regrets this”.
Comments: Transparency matters
The NCP has been transparent in publishing the procedural steps it has taken in both its Initial Assessment and its Final Statement. Nevertheless, we face a total lack of transparency on what was finally agreed upon between the former employees of Bralima and Heineken. This is in itself a missed opportunity to provide a learning curve for the Investment Committee of the OECD, governments, multinational enterprises and civil society. This lack of transparency regarding the actual outcome of the Bralima and Heineken procedure leads to uncertainty on what agreements have or have not been reached and seems to severely contradict the spirit and possibly even undermine the effectiveness of the OECD Guidelines.
In order to ensure that all NCPs operate in a comparable way, the Guidelines (2000) incorporated the concept of “functional equivalence” in the Procedural Guidance for NCPs, meaning that in order to achieve comparable functioning, the Guidelines provide for so-called Core Criteria for NCPs which relate to Visibility, Accessibility,Transparency and Accountability, based on which the NCP accordingly established its own Core Values.
However, as far as the Core criterion Transparency is concerned, the Guidelines state that “outcomes will be transparent unless preserving confidentiality is in the best interests of effective implementation of the Guidelines”. It is remarkable that the NCP itself regretted that both parties wanted to keep confidentiality on the outcome of the mediation, while not motivating its decision to ‘allow’ for confidentiality in the outcome of this case. It seems that the actual settlement of the dispute prevailed over ‘Transparency’ as one of the key Core Values under the OECD Guidelines. Did the “effective implementation” of the Guidelines with regards to Heineken truly require this lack of transparency regarding the final settlement? Or, isn’t it rather otherwise, that the effective implementation of the Guidelines, viewed from a general point of view, requires transparency as a default solution, with limited and strict exceptions that need to be properly justified?